Harvard, Princeton top college rankings

The latest edition of the contentious but closely followed "America's Best Colleges" appears online and in print Thursday.

Last year, Princeton had surrendered the top spot to Harvard after eight straight years at least tied for No. 1. This year the Ivy League rivals are followed by No. 3 Yale and a four-way tie for No. 4: Cal Tech, MIT, Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania.

The ranking formula takes account of factors such as SAT scores, peer reputation, selectivity and alumni giving.

As usual, there are few major moves up or down among colleges this year, but the rankings remain a hot topic of debate among educators. While few openly embrace the idea of numerically ranking colleges, some call the rankings a helpful consumer tool. But many others consider the practice harmful for both students and colleges.

Critics argue rankings pressure colleges to focus on boosting their scores in various categories, instead of improving their teaching. That debate was reignited earlier this year when a former Clemson University administrator described the school's coordinated efforts to move up the list.

There are also charges of gaming the system. Clemson's president acknowledged he ranked his own school higher than any other university when he responded to the magazine's peer review questionnaire -- a survey that accounts for 25 percent of a school's score. Some critics assume such cheerleading is widespread; the magazine keeps the surveys themselves confidential but says it has safeguards against "strategic voting."

It didn't help much: Clemson ranks No. 61 among national universities -- the same as last year.

U.S. News is the most closely watched ranking of undergraduate programs, but it has a growing number of imitators -- with very different ideas about what makes a top college.

Rankings recently published by Forbes.com, for instance, had the U.S. Military Academy at West Point ranked first, followed by Princeton and Cal Tech. But further down the list the results were wildly different, thanks to a methodology that places greater emphasis on graduates' debt load and employability (and also, controversially, uses the not-exactly-scientific web site ratemyprofessors.com). So while Dartmouth is the No. 11 university in U.S. News, Forbes.com ranks it No. 98 in a combined category of colleges and universities. Meanwhile, Forbes puts tiny Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia 18 spots ahead of the Ivy League's Brown University.

Nor do the top U.S. News universities fare well on a new report card by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, an academic group whose causes include stronger general education requirements in traditional subjects like history, literature and the hard sciences.

In a report card released Wednesday looking at 100 leading colleges, ACTA gave an "F" to nine of the U.S. News top 20 national universities, while awarding "A"s to five schools: West Point, Texas A&M, University of Texas, University of Arkansas and City University of New York-Brooklyn College.

ACTA said it found almost 90 percent of the leading schools fail to require a survey course in American government or history. Just two -- the University of Alaska-Fairbanks and West Point -- require economics. Meanwhile, the report card not-so-gently mocks courses that are allowed to count for core requirements -- offerings like Wesleyan University's "Physics for Future Presidents" and Stanford's "Ki ho'alu: The New Renaissance of a Hawaiian Musical Tradition."

The average cost for the five schools that require six core subjects and thus received an A: $5,400. The average cost for those receiving an "F" for no such requirements: $37,700.

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